RECRUITING: A Lot on the Line for UT

Tennessee's 2006 football recruiting campaign is in a curious state of flux, coming off an SEC division title, Cotton Bowl blowout and signing of the nation's No. 1 rated class, expectations are justifiably high, but lingering doubts persist.

The doubts are due to the fact the Vols haven't won an SEC title since they won a national title in 1998. That's a relatively short span compared to the 47 years between national championships at UT (1951 to 1998), but it is a source of concern for many elite prospects who have played for championships throughout their high school careers and aim to play for more at the collegiate level.

Most of today's top prospects were just 10 years old when Tennessee ended the national title drought by capturing that championship in in Tempe, Ariz., and would be hard pressed to even recall what remains a landmark achievement for folks in Big Orange Country.

To make matters worse, Tennessee hasn't played in a BCS bowl game since 1999, which was their third consecutive appearance in a high profile post season contest. Since that successful run of Orange, Fiesta and Fiesta Bowl games, the Vols have played in the Cotton Bowl twice, the Peach Bowl twice and the Citrus Bowl once, losing three of the five contests, including a couple of one-sided defeats in the Peach Bowl.

Again this doesn't seem as significant as Tennessee's year in and year out consistency that has seen the Vols maintain a 15-year streak of bowl appearances, but it is to prospects being pursued by a plethora of pigskin powers.

Since Tennessee last won a national championship, Florida State, Miami, Oklahoma, Ohio State, LSU and USC (twice) have all reached the pinnacle of college football. The Vols are contending against all of these schools for premiere prospects.

In fact at least two of those teams are contenders for virtually every top target Tennessee has left on its recruiting board, including such standouts as: No. 1 receiver Vidal Hazelton, No. 1 offensive lineman Andre Smith, No. 1 cornerback Jai Eugene, No. 2 running back LeSean McCoy, No. 2 receiver Percy Harvin, No. 2 defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, No. 3 running back Stafon Johnson and No. 4 linebacker Joshua Tatum.

The list of gridiron notables goes on and on as does the chorus of contenders. There is also a familiar refrain on recruiting trails from competitors that questions whether Tennessee can swim with the sharks and survive. USC touts its national titles, but doesn't mention its 5-7 record in 2000 or its 6-5 mark in 2001, when UT went 8-4 and 11-2. Likewise, LSU talks about its SEC Championship victory over the Vols in 2001 which preceded its national title run of 2003, but conveniently leaves out its 5-19-3 mark all time against the Vols. Miami is 1-2 vs. Tennessee, Ohio State 0-1, Florida State 1-1 as is Oklahoma, but representatives from each of those programs would have prospects believe they will not hoist the Waterford crystal trophy if they cast their lot with UT.

All that's within the rules in recruiting is fair and every program is going to try and spin perceptions in their favor. Unfortunately, teen-agers have short memories and what have you done lately carries more weight that what you've done historically. If that wasn't the case Miami would never be grouped with gridiron heavyweights given its Johnny-come-lately status.

This helps explain what appears to be a slow start to the recruiting season for Tennessee. Prospects are taking a wait-and-see approach while the Vols are banking on a big season creating the momentum they need to put together another top five recruiting class.

Additionally, Tennessee is still evaluating prospects from the Class of 2005 to better ascertain its needs in 2006, and with a limited number of scholarships available can afford fewer reaches.

In short: for a tradition rich Tennessee football program, the future is now.

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